YSEALI Fellows are making an impact in Siem Reap, Cambodia

By: Nicole Mitchell


During my week in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I met with four YSEALI Fellows who are making a significant impact in their country. There is a cultural shift happening in Siem Reap, thanks to these fellows. The YSEALI Fellowship, is providing valuable leadership skills and training to young adults in South East Asia who in return, are working hard and doing meaningful work in their country.

This visit brought me to Siem Reap, to meet with our Flagship fellow, Vybol Chea who is an EducationUSA Cambodia advisor in the American Corner at the University of South East Asia (SEA). For his project with the YSEALI Fellowship, Vybol is developing a SEA-Flagship Program. This program will coordinate with the third and fourth year University of SEA, English department students who will volunteer to teach in the primary public schools in Siem Reap. The SEA-Flagship Program will focus on English literacy. University of SEA college student volunteers will teach English reading and writing in the public primary schools in Siem Reap (15% of primary school children cannot write or read, in grades 4-6 it is higher). The SEA-Flagship Program will target high poverty schools and children with low level English skills.

As part of Vybol’s YSEALI project, he is hoping to partner with the Provincial Teacher Training College. This school trains young adults to become teachers. Piloting the SEA Flagship Program at this school as a part of their education seems like a great fit.

I visited three high poverty schools in Siem Reap that are working with the EducationUSA Cambodia, Help Kids Read Project. This program partners with the American Corner at the University of SEA, where college students volunteer to teach Khmer reading and writing to primary age children. Vybol is hoping to implement the SEA-Flagship Program in these schools.

Through these visits, I learned about public and private, primary and secondary schools in Cambodia. The Ministry of Education funds public schools in Cambodia. In both public, primary and secondary education, children attend school seven days a week. To manage the number of children in both public, primary and secondary schools, there is a morning session and an afternoon session. Children only go to school for a half day and either attend a morning or an afternoon session. At each of the three government funded schools I visited, similar needs are apparent, they lack resources like school supplies or materials, books, classroom space, and fans to keep cool. Funds from the government go towards curriculum, teacher and administrative salaries, and the building space, but most schools are overcrowded. At each of these schools, teachers and administrative staff are compassionate, caring, and committed to giving the children the best education possible.

The YSEALI Fellows are a tight knit group in Siem Reap, who are working in education or NGO’s to better the lives of the people in their country. I met with a former Missoula, YSEALI Fellow, Se Chhin at the NGO he works with called, This Life Cambodia. From my discussion with Se, This Life Cambodia is filling a gap for schools and communities based on their needs. This Life Cambodia works with both, communities and schools on strategies for parent engagement, creating an infrastructure for fund development, and juvenile justice.

Another former YSEALI Fellow I met with, Dara Heng works for The Global Child. The Global Child, is a nonprofit NGO providing free private education to underprivileged youth in Cambodia. The mission of The Global Child is to educate youth who are of the age when families would make them be street workers. The criteria to enroll in The Global Child is strict and the youth must be hungry for an education. The Global Child helps families with domestic violence, breaking the cycle of poverty, equality of gender issues, and placing value on education.

Nicole XV

The final YSEALI Fellow I met with was Kimsru Duth, who works with a nonprofit NGO, PEPY. As a scholarship program, PEPY empowers youth to reach their full potential by teaching them skills to prepare for univeristy. PEPY teaches youth life skills, English, and technology in preparation for university.

lunch with se and kimsru
lunch with Se and Kimsru


Siem Reap is home to many ancient temples, the most well known being, Angkor Wat. I had two opportunities to visit and learn about the Khmer culture and history. The carvings, detail, and designs were extraordinary. The temples were filled with symbolism and stories about the ancient culture.


I stayed at the Rambutan Hotel & Resort in Siem Reap. It was a very nice boutique hotel tucked away, off the main streets in the American Corner. The staff were so kind, warm and welcoming, they greeted me daily by name. The hotel had a pool and small restaurant on site, which had delicious food. My favorite morning dish was “Bobo” a rice porridge with ginger, garlic, onion and carrots. On my last day, I had a wonderful conversation with the manager who was originally from Belgium and who has been with the hotel for eights years. The hotel is a socially conscience establishment that provides scholarships for staff to attend the University of SEA. They also provide health and dental care for employees. Rambutan provides a wonderful experience for guests and takes care of their staff. The staff retention rate is high with some employees having been there between 5-10 years.

It was a bit tricky navigating food as a vegan in Cambodia. I did have fantastic curry and tofu, rice dishes, espresso and fruit. My favorite dish was the Khmer Curry with tofu, sweet potatoes, green beans and onion with rice. I traveled by way of tuk tuk mostly, it was a great mode of transportation to get to know the city.

I had a fantastic stay in Siem Reap and grateful for the length of stay. With the journey to get here being so long, anything shorter than a week would be a challenge.

Nicole XXV


Funding Realities Hit Hard in Hanoi

Written by Liz Moore, Montana Nonprofit Association

I’m sitting in the Seattle airport, almost back to Montana after two and a half weeks working with NGOs in Southeast Asia. Thank you to the Professional Fellows exchange program at the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center. This is a U.S. State Department funded program that is working – the cultural and professional exchange is a rich opportunity that is expanding relationships between countries and strengthening civil society in Southeast Asia. And for me, what a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience it has been.

I flew from Helena to Myanmar on March 6th. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the spirit of innovation and the number of social enterprise endeavors I saw in the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) I met with in Myanmar. I also noted a general need for increased organizational focus among the organizations I met with; most of my conversations with CSO leaders eventually came down to the topics of focus and strategic planning. I speculated this was a result of very young organizations taking on a variety of projects to meet the spectrum of needs in the community. Early on this may have been adaptive; but as these same CSOs have matured, their need for sharpened focus and less fragmentation has increased.

I wondered if I would find something similar in Hanoi, where I spent the second half of my exchange, March 15-22.

Thao was my host for this leg of the adventure. She works with Glocal Ventures, Inc. (GVI), a faith-based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) working with orphanages in Hanoi. She was trained to be a high school teacher, but after meeting GVI eight years ago she made the switch to civil society work. I met her in May, 2017 during her month-long fellowship at United Way of Missoula County, not knowing I’d be fortunate enough to have a week with her in Hanoi this year.

While in Vietnam, I met with and/or presented to at least eight different NGOs or CSOs. Almost all knew themselves as an acronym – which was handy for me: CECEM, CEPEW, ACDC, GES, GIV, and CDW, to name a few. Most of the presentations included more than one participating organization. I can’t tell you for sure the finer distinctions between an NGO and CSO; but NGOs are registered formally through a rigorous process – perhaps similar to 501 (c)(3) organizations except with a much lengthier timeline for approval. CSOs on the other hand are organized but are not registered NGOs. Many of the CSOs have received some level of funding from NGOs or international NGOs (INGOs). All NGOs are Civil Society Organizations, but not all CSOs are considered NGOs.

While I found many similarities between civil society efforts in Myanmar and Hanoi, there were some notable differences. The main theme that emerged for me in Hanoi was this: CSOs there are experiencing the reality of a significant decrease in NGO and INGO funding, which has been the core source of funding for years. And so they are primarily focused on fundraising. That’s obviously too simplistic a statement, but it was the theme I observed at the high level.

As the economic picture has improved in Vietnam, INGOs have focused resources in a different direction, meaning – they have shifted funding to other countries. From my perspective there are three significant challenges for CSOs trying to cope with the change. 1) Government does not fund CSOs in Vietnam; in fact – my understanding is that the law doesn’t allow for it in a straightforward way. 2) There is not a widespread culture of corporate or individual philanthropy. That’s not to say people don’t give. When there is a natural disaster of some sort – they give. And they also give to their house of faith. But philanthropy is not incentivized, and it’s not integrated into everyday life. 3) Although the overall economy may be stronger in Vietnam, a huge swath of the population is left out and not necessarily better off. The net result is that CSOs are scrambling to learn how to fill the gap in a society not structured to help them. Certainly it’s a positive change for CSOs to gain a deeper sense of ownership over their own destinies as INGOs decrease their support. But if I could, I would request this of INGOs during the transition: remember, it is a very real transition. Help the CSOs figure out fundraising. Also help them work within their communities to shift the culture of philanthropy. And help them become creative and innovative about how to do mergers. The transition is going to take several years, and while it is perhaps an appropriate shift, support is needed to move through the changes in a way that continues to support a strong civil society.

There is a very real opportunity and need for infrastructure organizations to help with organizational development in Vietnam. CECEM is one such organization, and perhaps there are others. I referred several people to the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) which is an international professional development organization for fundraisers. It would be savvy right now to bring in concentrated fundraising expertise over the next year or so. Similar to Myanmar, I believe the greatest fundraising opportunities in Vietnam are corporate philanthropy and social enterprise that targets spending by tourists.

In both Myanmar and Vietnam there is tremendous sensitivity to reputation and wanting to partner with corporations and government in ways that do not diminish the CSO brand and reputation for integrity. The reputation of CSOs is a significant asset, and it’s going to take time for them to teach corporations about what they do and how corporations can support them in a mutually beneficial manner that upholds the reputation of the CSO as an independent and neutral entity, there for the benefit of civil society.

A final note. I’m so appreciative of the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) and our own Mansfield Center staff. There is an alumni group of former YSEALI fellows in Myanmar, and they are a real community, supporting one another as leaders in civil society. I remember when the Mansfield Center was first applying for this grant; it was a great vision. Today I have had the benefit of having seen firsthand the results of several years of excellent effort. The Mansfield Center staff have strong ties in each of the five countries involved in the YSEALI program, and I hope the University of Montana recognizes what a significant accomplishment this is, and what a contribution to civil society they are making. Well done all, and thank you for the opportunity to be a part of this remarkable program.

Building professional connections, growing friendships and sampling fantastic Vietnamese food

By: Amy Cilimburg

My last day in Ho Chi Minh City is bitter sweet. The City itself is a little big for my style (15 million or more?) but the colleagues and friends who’ve helped me navigate and experience this sprawling metropolis and the country of Vietnam have me feeling almost at home. Chau Nhi and her CHANGE Team are simply wonderful. During my second and final week here, we worked hard—sharing, strategizing, and navigating on topics from reducing single use plastics and straws, to agriculture, traffic congestion, landing grants, and going solar.

Indeed, solar energy has been a significant focus of my time here. A TV journalist even interviewed me about our solar lanterns! The Climate Change Team from CHANGE and I discussed at length how solar energy is utilized today and options for encouraging this renewable energy system over the short and long term. Obviously, there are large differences between our countries. Vietnam operates a national electricity company, has little opportunity for individuals or businesses to tie into the electrical grid, and limited rooftop space in their populated areas. In Montana, we’re primarily served by an investor-owned energy utility, can incorporate solar photo voltaic energy onto the electricity grid, and, at least in Missoula, have plenty of space on rooftops for solar panels. On the other hand there are similarities. In both countries (and around the world), conversations about energy systems are shifting as the urgency of addressing climate change becomes more and more evident, though the systems themselves are slow to shift. Energy costs are relatively low in both locales, so enthusiasm for conservation remains a challenge. And the price of solar arrays has them out of reach for to most people, bringing up issues of social equity. Finally, we’re both trying to build a movement and inspire action.

On a different note, during my second week I was able to spend a day outside of the big city, touring a part of the Mekong Delta. The challenges of managing water across international boundaries and as the climate changes are daunting. Our meeting with the US Consulate the day prior discussed these challenges. Much of the delta is all too susceptible to raising sea levels, reinforcing how critical it is to reduce emissions world-wide. It was so good to see the delta and discuss with people what to that point I’d only read about online. And finding a super cool bird like an Asian Openbill Stork helped the experience feel complete.

Also this past week I continues to sample the incredible food of Vietnam, from pho to bun bo. My last lunch with the entire CHANGEVN Team was a highlight!

I’m super inspired by YSEALI (the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative) and thank the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana which manages this great program, and the US State Department, which sponsors it. It is so critical in these times that we come together and learn from each other. Although our two countries are quite different, inspiring people to care and doing the difficult work of advocacy is happening in both places. We all need more art, laughter, NextGen voices, wisdom from our elders, and plain old hope to keep us inspired and moving forward.

Myanmar’s Evolving Civil Society Organizations

I’ve spent the last two weeks traveling via a professional exchange as part of the US State Department’s Professional Fellows program with YSEALI (Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative.) Wow! It has been a whirlwind tour of the best kind. Myanmar. Nine days and eight civil society organizations later, my brain is tired but my heart is light. Each organization was unique, but looking through the lens of organizational development, several common themes emerged.

First, the leaders I met with are learners. In every presentation I made there was such earnest attention to every discussion and to what was being said. From civil society organization (CSO) directors, to volunteers and university students – participants were hungry to learn. As a result, my time in Myanmar felt extraordinarily productive. And I hope their time with me felt productive as well.

My observation is that one of the reasons there was such concentrated attention is because leaders are experiencing a need to increase planning and organizational focus. And it stands to reason. After all, most of the civil society organizations I saw are young. In their short lifetimes, they have adopted a variety of worthwhile causes in response to a vast and extensive array of community needs. For a while, it probably served them well to be adaptive in this way. They are successful, trusted resources in the community. But in several instances the organizational leaders are now hitting a wall in their ability to be sustainable, and the need to ramp up planning and focus may be contributing.

Another factor for every civil society organization I worked with is sustainability. In spite of a very strong social enterprise presence, organizations are searching for additional ways to become less dependent on grant funds, which are increasingly squeezed. As we reviewed potential sources of additional revenue, two opportunities came to the top of the list: 1) find ways to gain revenue from tourism, such as fair trade type markets, and 2) develop relationships with corporations as donors and/or sponsors if and when possible.

Conversation about developing relationships with corporate sponsors quickly led to discussions about reputation and perception. This is a perfect example of the type of thoughtful consideration I encountered from the CSO leaders I worked with. The commitment to maintaining a strong, neutral, trustworthy reputation was prevalent.

The level of innovative social enterprise imbedded into the civil society framework in Myanmar is impressive. A great example is the Third Story project, which gives free books to the children of Yangon by writing, illustrating, publishing and selling beautiful children’s literature. Their social enterprise is thriving. Nonetheless, they are feeling the fragmentation of going in too many directions in order to try to make the enterprise successful. They are working on a plan to solve the problem.

There is a real sense of innovative, grass roots problem solving within the CSOs I encountered during my time in Myanmar. The leaders I worked with are persistently seeking ways to evolve their organizations to do more and meet more needs, with or without grant funds. The Water Ceramic Factory/Thirst Aid partnership is an example. I talked at length with YSEALI Alum Saw Yo Har about whether there is an additional social enterprise component to the ceramics work at the factory that might gain traction because of the growing tourism in Myanmar. I also toured a village that is seeing economic growth by creating opportunities for tourists to see rural Myanmar crafts women and men up close.

One of the most personally exciting organizations I visited was the Community Center in Mandalay. They have many similarities to Montana Nonprofit Association in terms of their focus on becoming an infrastructure support organization for CSOs in the area. We could have talked all day about revenue models, membership structure, and corporate support. They are still just beginning, but they have the benefit of thoughtful and committed leadership and I have no doubt they will be the MNA of Mandalay. Thank you YSEALI Alum, Htet Htet Aung, for your hospitality.

I hope the US State Department takes a measure of pride in the YSEALI program. The YSEALI Professional Fellows from the Mansfield Center are making a real difference in Southeast Asia’s civil society as they contribute to a growing economy, gender equity, the wellbeing of children, the state of education, leadership development and so much more in Myanmar. These young leaders are building a future where peace can prevail because civil society development is taking place in ways large and small throughout the country. It was humbling and an honor to be there, and I’m looking forward to the new innovative ideas which will emerge next for the benefit of Myanmar’s beautiful people and countryside.

Liz Moore, Executive Director, Montana Nonprofit Association

In Vietnam, meeting those inspired to make CHANGE. And being inspired

By: Amy Cilimburg

My first week in Vietnam has me reeling. Lots of friendly smiles, thousands upon thousands of motorbikes, the fancy new juxtaposed with the humble old. So very different from the US and then again, some things are quite familiar. Like a group of people working to make the planet better for all and considering new, positive opportunities and solutions. I have been meeting with the various teams at CHANGE Vietnam as we share strategies for fundraising, communications, and transforming our planet’s antiquated energy system to one that utilizes renewable energy, particularly solar, something that just about every country is working to figure out.

I was lucky enough to be in Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City during International Women’s Day, my second day here. It’s a big deal in this country. The four men at CHANGE secretly set up a special lunch for all the women. They made cards, calendars and brought flowers to the table – and they bought our lunch. As a woman, I of course had a place at the table and I too felt appreciated. The team enjoys each other and laughs, even when the work is difficult and solutions challenging. This too feels familiar. The food of course, much less familiar and nothing short of spectacular.

Two days and many conversations later, I accompanied the CHANGE Team to meet journalists who write about the environment, renewable energy, wildlife protection, and the like. The Team shared with the journalists their accomplishments and areas of focus in the year ahead. It was an interactive conversation as they all strategized about how to best share the information that matters, or so my interpreter said. Toward the end of the media briefing, the CHANGE Team presented each journalist with a solar powered inflatable lantern that I had brought with me from the US. These are the only “shwag” Climate Smart Missoula has, and they wonderfully express how easy it is to have solar – a push of the button! Interestingly, they had never seen anything like these lanterns, and at least one journalist plans to visit with me before I head back to the US to better understand why we like solar and the power it brings. Stay tuned as I’ll share more about our solar meetings and whether I make the big time media in Ho Chi Minh City.